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Chat with Robert Pierre, April 19, 2010, Noon
A Lesson Before Dying (Live Chat Transcript)

10:42 Producer: Kandace Foreman:

Today, we are pleased to have Robert Pierre, writer and editor with The Washington Post lead the discussion on A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. The novel tells the story of a young man growing up in Louisiana in the 1940’s who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. How is this story relevant to today’s times? Would Jefferson’s outcome have been different if he were literate? You can submit your questions now. The chat will begin at noon.

10:51 Robert Pierre:
Good morning all. Just testing to make sure everything is in working order. I look forward to your questions, thoughts and insights on Jefferson, his aunt, the preacher, the teacher (and his girlfriend), the sheriff or whichever character or theme you found intriguing, maddening, or both. I will be back at noon.

11:56 Cheryl Bridges:
I'm leading a book discussion this Tuesday @ 3:00pm in the Popular Library Division. This book left me in tears. It's a shame in those days it was just no hope for a Black man wrongfully accused. I look forward to the chat and to my extended discussion on Tuesday. The book and the movie are tear jerkers.

11:56 Cheryl Bridges:
Why do you think a teacher was chosen over a pastor to make him feel like a man before his death?

11:56 Cheryl Bridges:
Was this process more for Jefferson or for his nana soul?

11:56 Cheryl Bridges:
Didn't you feel that Jefferson godmother and Grant's aunt were overly harsh on Grant?

11:56 Cheryl Bridges:
This book also brought out a lot of anger towards the white society of the past.

11:56 Robert Pierre:
To Ms. Bridges: I think the teacher was chosen because Grant Wiggins started closer to where Jefferson was. Even though he went pushing and pulling all the way, I think the author, Mr. Gaines, was subtly showing how smart these old ladies were, understanding that a preacher starting right in about Jesus and soul saving might be off putting to a boy who had lost his way and that, from the vantage point of the aunt and nannan, you need somebody lost to help somebody lost find their way. But the other part is that they knew how they raised Grant, what they had poured into him, and that he would handle this task because he had been raised by the community to do just that. What had been poured into him, he owed back, whether he liked it or not.

12:02 Robert Pierre:
@Ms. Bridges, regarding who the process was for: I think it was for them both. Whether he accepted Christ or not, I think his nana believed that it was better for a man or woman to stand upright. She had bowed all of her life but, near the end, she took a stand and demanded in the way that black people could at the time that the white people in her life that she had done something for, would grant her one wish and a big one: the opportunity to have raised--at least for a day--a whole man, rather than a bowing and scraping boy, or as the prosecutor said, a hog.

12:04 Lauren Craig:
Do you think the children on the plantation will eventually have hope to improve their way of life?

12:07 David:
At the beginning of the novel, much is made of the condescending and hurtful comparison of Jefferson to a "hog." However, I sense a similar set of assumptions from Grant to his students. Do you think Ernest Gaines expects us to be as critical of Grant as we are of the law officers who denigrate Jefferson's humanity?

12:10 Robert Pierre:
@Lauren...I assume you are talking about the children on that plantation. But I will answer this from a personal perspective. My family grew up in Southern Louisiana on a plantation not that different from this one. I detail this in first chapter of my recent book, A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's 'Post Racial' America. I lived there for the first 7 years of life before my family moved in 1975 (not a mistake). But my parents and my grandmother told me that growing up they didn’t always see the poverty that others saw. It was just live. But it was as they grew that they realized the boundaries that had been set for them--at least in that place and it’s the reason, I think, that communities bonded together to try to send a few folks away to get an education and serve as those points of light.

12:10 Tawanda Johnson:
good question. I was wondering the same thing david

12:12 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Just a quick note about Robert while he works on your answers…Robert Pierre is co-author with Jon Jeter of A Day Late and a Dollar Short, High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s “Post Racial” America. Check it out from the library,, or purchase copies at and

12:14 Robert Pierre:
@David, I think the author wants you to contemplate that people from different walks of life (say conservatives and liberals) sometimes have the same narrow sets of assumptions and do different things with them. Sure, Grant was condescending, but Grant also knew the specific circumstances of each child. And while he may have thought down and occasionally talked down on these students, he also came back daily to teach them the survival skills they would need beyond the plantation. Like Vivian told him, you left but you came back. Grant wants to be hard but in the end he cares more than he is willing to admit to himself.

12:16 Robert Pierre:
And just to finish the thought, I don't think the same could be said of the prosecutor or others. They talk at, and about black people, never really wanting them to answer. So yes, same sets of assumptions, but wildly different in how they are viewed. And, in the end, Grant, for those on the plantation, is one of them, one who has left to get an education and come back as one who can help the rest of the folks move forward.

12:17 Chris T.:
One of the most striking things about this book is the depiction of the mechanics of the death penalty at the time. Truly horrifying. As an interesting contrast (or maybe really reaffirmation) have you read the works of Wilbert Rideau or seen the documentary on Angola? It doesn't seem like we've come very far...

12:18 Deborah:
Do you think it really mattered to Jefferson if he thought he was a hog or a man since he knew he was going to die anyway?

12:19 Gregg Grisa:
I started reading Chapter 29 (Jefferson's Diary) and couldn't make heads or tails of the dialect. So I skipped it and finished the novel. did I miss something important? And why didn't Gaines include an English translation of the chapter if he wants people to read it?

12:20 Robert Pierre:
The details were truly horrifying. I initially thought too much so. But I believe he was making the point with the book, and with that chapter on the chair, was to intentionally go overboard and say: you cannot avert your eyes to this. This is you, a part of the state, killing someone. If you turn away, then you have to hear it. You have to remember....And yes I have read some of Mr. Rideau's writing and actually, while a student at LSU in Baton Rouge, visited Angola. It is nothing but a big, and scary, plantation that feels like it might have felt 100 years ago

12:22 Tyrone:
What's the latest on Keith Richburg? We need more books from him. He is the man.

12:25  Robert Pierre:
@Deborah...Being a human being always matters, it seems to me. We are all going to die, today or tomorrow or whenever. But having lost my grandmother recently to cancer, it certainly mattered that she was surrounded by people who loved her, was never alone and knew her God. I was reminded of that in the scene with the children visiting Jefferson in jail, some afraid, but sitting their talking. Sure he was going to die, but in that moment, he was living and that's what men and women do. His nana couldn't change that he was going to die, but she could make sure that he at least lived --had a bit of joy and solace--before he did. That was the point, I think, not the dying.

12:25 Cheryl:
I didn't think it mattered to him at first, because he felt belittled and condemned but after he was reminded by Grant that he is a man and should die as a man eventually he felt different.

12:26 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
The film brings the book to life. Watch A Lesson Before Dying FREE at Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14 - April 20 at 6 pm and April 24 at 11:30 am. Click on to print your pass.

12:27 Robert Pierre:
@Gregg, yes the diary was very important. it wasn't dialect really, just the musing of an illiterate with run-on sentences. it was a powerful chapter, even if you can't understand every word. It was a peek into other people's world, and understanding it can be difficult.

12:29 Solomon:
Do you think the pastor was jealous of the responsibility given to Grant?
12:29 Robert Pierre:
@ Cheryl, I think it always mattered to Jefferson. He just didn't have the words to express himself. Just because people accept their lowly status doesn't mean that they don't know anything. They listen and watch hypocrisy and then decide if they can afford to challenge it or just keep their job by acting dumb. What happened with Grant is that Jefferson found a venue through which to express what he already knew but didn't have the words to say or believe that anyone was listening. Grant listened.

12:32 Robert Pierre:
@Solomon, I think he might have been jealous, in part. But I don't think that was the main driver. I there he just didn't like him walking around thinking he was better than everybody else, especially the women in the Quarter who raised him.

12:33 KathyJ:
I feel there was a power struggle also between Grant and his aunt. He wanted to stand up to her but couldn't any more than he could stand up to the whites.

12:35 KJones:
Why do you think Gaines brought Vivian into the story? Do all stories require a love interest?
Monday April 19, 2010 12:35

12:36 KathyJ:
She was also another strong woman that Grant could not manipulate.

12:38 Robert Pierre:
@Kathy...There was certainly a power struggle between Grant and his aunt and both knew the boundaries of their pushing. Whatever his reservations, he understood in his heart of hearts that she had poured everything she had into him and she owed him for that.

12:41 Robert Pierre:
@KJONES...I can say for sure why she was there. But, for me, it brought some complexity to Grant. He was, in many ways, selfish, except with Vivian, or so I thought. He was good and bad and complicated, and she was more than a love interest too. She challenged him, grounded him and was, for me, the bridge between the old women and their ways and Grant's idea that what they believed in did not matter or was just too old timey.

12:42  KJones:
Do you think Grant ever resented his parents for leaving him with his nanan? Maybe that's why he always stayed with her and never went to live with his parents in California.

12:42 Robert Pierre:
@Kjones....maybe I skimmed over that but was living with his parents ever an option?

12:44 Robert Pierre:
@ Tyrone, give me an example of what you consider colloquialism in the book. Being from that part of the world, I am too close, sometimes, to see it.

12:44 Tyrone:
Can you speak to the author's use of colloquialism and onomatopoeia as symbolism? What about the dramatic irony inherent in the scene at the general store?

12:44 Lauren:
@Robert...I don't think Grant living with his parents was ever an option for him.

12:44 Jameely:
@ Gregg...I believe that Gaines included Chapter 29 in Jefferson's voice for a reason. I felt a more personal attachment to Jefferson's character and was finally assured that Grant's visits to him were making an impact. Did anyone else get the same feeling?

12:44 KJones:
I took his parents leaving as a way for them to better themselves. I did not get the sense that it was offered to Grant to accompany them or that he ever wanted to. Maybe Grant had more connections to that place than he thought and he decided to stick it out there, even when others didn't.

12:45 Robert Pierre:
@KJones...for better or worse, that plantation was home and safe and I think even though he despised his old teacher, I think Grant did partly like being the 'big man on campus." One of the people who is looked up, has the prettiest woman, etc. You go to the big city and you are a cog in the wheel. Home calls us all, at some point, I think.

12:47  KJones:
I thought chapter 29 was hard to read at first too. But as I continued to read I began to see through Jefferson's eyes. I thought it was a very powerful chapter.

12:49 David:
Re: Chapter 29: I felt Jefferson's writing was essential to the novel, and I found it incredibly moving. Throughout, characters struggle for self-expression and self-affirmation in the midst of overwhelming bias. The chapter devoted to Jefferson's writing, in terms of plot, attests to Grant's success in reaching him. On a broader level, it brings Jefferson in line with the other characters who spend the novel trying to find their own truths in opposition to ideas about who they are and can be.

12:49 Robert Pierre:
Chapter 29 was the most powerful in the book, the kids kneeling, Jefferson talking about a 'pretty woman" touching ugly ole him, using his terminology. The soul of a man in that chapter. I think it was always in him, and in the book at least, it's brought to bear by the radio--a reminder of life on the outside with music and sunshine and rain-- as much as by the words spoken by Grant

12:50 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Big Read DC events are being promoted through The Washington Post’s PostPoints. Use BR5647 as your special code to receive points. Want to sign up for a free account? Visit to sign up. As a PostPoints member you earn points to redeem at retail locations for discounts on merchandise.

12:53 Robert Pierre:
one of the interesting themes for me was this continually pushing of boundaries by characters to be more than others thought they could be: a hungry grant refusing to sit and then refusing to eat when he was hungry; jefferson's mother daring to demand things from the white family that had employed her; etc

12:54 KJones:
Yes. I found that he pushed boundaries a lot too. Why do you think he never got in trouble for pushing them?

12:54 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
We have had a very interesting discussion, but we are nearing the end. We have approximately five minutes left. Please submit your final questions.

12:55  David:
I was intrigued by the same theme. What does "resistance" look like for characters who find their humanity denied (and this denial institutionalized) by the prevailing culture?

12:55 Robert Pierre:
@KJones, Because he was smart enough never to cross them so much that the whites he was addressed were publicly humiliated. Pushed just enough to let them know he knew but backed down quickly enough to let them maintain their authority

12:56 Robert Pierre:
@david, exactly...excellent way to frame it, what does resistance look like, and what is the breaking point for each of us.

12:56 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Robert, thanks so much for leading today’s discussion. Everyone, don’t forget to join us for the next Big Read DC discussion on April 26 at noon with Michelle Singletary, author of The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom. Thanks for your participation.

12:59 Robert Pierre:
Well, thanks everyone for excellent questions. Always good to talk about ideas, especially those from long ago stories that continue to resonate in our lives today. Thanks so much and thanks to the D.C. Library for putting this on.

Chat with Michelle Singletary, April 26, 2010, Noon
A Lesson Before Dying (Live Chat Transcript)

11:07 Producer: Kandace Foreman:

Today, we are pleased to have Michelle Singletary, author and columnist with The Washington Post lead the discussion on “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines. The novel tells the story of a young man growing up in Louisiana in the 1940’s who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. How does the penal system in the story compare to DC’s juvenile penal system? Has the value of education changed today for the better or is it undervalued? Share your perspective on the story with us. You can submit your questions now. The chat will begin at noon.

11:53 KathyJ:
Could the conversation between Grant and his girlfriend have taken place between him and his aunt instead about his upbring, parents and internal conflict about staying and leaving with the same affect?

12:02 Michelle Singletary:
Good afternoon everyone. I'm just thrilled to be your guest host and to talk about this powerful book. I know I was in tears along with Prof. Wiggins at the end. Love to hear your thoughts. In particular, did you wonder if the teacher kept teaching.

12:02 [Comment From Laura Brown]
Great book!

12:02 [Comment From KJones]
This was a great read. Although it is fiction, I'm sure this has happened to someone in real life. What advice would you give to teens today who think that they could never be in the wrong place at the wrong time? 

12:05 [Comment From Deborah]
Do you think the deputy sheriff was nice to Jefferson because he thought he was innocent? 

12:05 [Comment From A. Lawson]
I thought nanaan and Tante Lou were incredible characters in the book. I'm curious that the white people never took offense or got angry at nanaan's approach to making them do what she wanted. Why do you think they gave her so much respect?

12:06 [Comment From India]
We all knew how the story would end and it was so sad, but do you think Grant and Vivian got married and stayed in Bayonne?

12:06 [Comment From Carmelia Ferrell]
Grant seemed to be so unhappy in Bayonne, but he continued to stay. He even left once and came back. Why did he go through so much trouble if he didn't like the place?

12:06 [Comment From KJones]
I want to think that he did keep teaching. I think he always had a special connection to Bayonne because of Tante Lou, but now with his connection with Jefferson I don’t think he will ever leave or stop teaching. 

12:06  Michelle Singletary:
The one thing that tugged at my heart the entire book was how many young folks think they can't be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm forever fussing with my 15-year-old about who she chooses to hang out with. 

12:06 [Comment From KJones]
I could not begin to imagine the thoughts that someone locked in prison would have, especially when they knew they were going to die. How did Jefferson manage to stay so calm throughout his ordeal?

12:06 [Comment From Donna Carter]
The radio was a great turning point for Jefferson and the preacher seemed so upset with the way Grant was trying to reach him, particularly since he could not. Do you think the preacher was jealous of the relationship Grant and Jefferson had or was his aggravation really over his concern that Jefferson's soul would not be saved?

12:06 [Comment From Deborah]
Chapter 29 is Jefferson's diary, it was very hard to read when I first begin, but then I started to understand what he was saying. This was such a powerful chapter and one that allowed us to see how Jefferson was thinking. I think something would have been missing if that chapter was not in the book.

12:10 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Michelle is working to answer your questions. Be sure to check out her latest book, “The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom” from the library or purchase copies at and

12:10 Michelle Singletary:
Actually, Jefferson wasn't calm. He was angry, hostile, forlorned, dejected, etc. But you know he had long given up on his life, well before he was actually behind bars. He had been in prison for a long time. He was imprisoned by his lack of education, job opportunites -- hope. I volunteer at a prison regularly, teaching women who are about to be released how to handle their money. And the conversations I have with them are much like those Grant Wiggins had with Jefferson. It's sad really.

12:10 Michelle Singletary
I think Paul, the deputy, was nice because he was a decent human being. There really wasn't an indication whether he thought Jefferson was innocent. But I do think he understood his plight.

12:11 Michelle Singletary
A. Lawson:
On the contrary they gave the women no respect at all. They way they talked to them and handled them were more like children begging for something. I thought those scenes were some of the most hard to read. I think they gave in because in their humanity they knew these women had done a lot for their families so they helped more out of obligation and perhaps guilt than respect. But I agree I LOVED the way they handled Grant. They knew. They knew he needed to die with dignity and that in the end he had to go like a man. That's why I respected them.

12:14 Michelle Singletary
I want to believe Grant and Vivian stayed and got married. I think in the end it was Grant's life that was saved. In many respects the lesson before dying wasn't just the transformation of Jefferson, it was the life lesson for Grant. He was dead before Jefferson died. And Jefferson and what he did for that young man brought him back to life. So, yes, I think he stayed and I like to hope he became the teacher that town, those people needed him to be.

12:16 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Join DC Public Library this Saturday, May 1 at 11:30 a.m. for a Big Read Marathon. Enjoy selected readings from “A Lesson Before Dying” by special guest readers at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G Street, NW, Great Hall, Washington, DC 20001. We’re at the corner of 9th and G streets across from Gallery Place Metro. Check out more Big Read DC events at

12:17Michelle Singletary:
He went back for the same reasons we all go back to family reunions or our parents or home towns or the people who bug the heck out of us but are living in our home towns or literally our old homes. You go back because you want to believe things can change. You go back because there is a powerful tug to make that change, to hope that people and places will evolve. Grant knew they needed him as much as his aunt and Vivian needed him. It's why I still have contact with my triflin relatives. I love them and want more for them.

12:17 Michelle Singletary
I believe too.

12:18 Michelle Singletary
I would like to think that if Grant does leave, that he continues to teach elsewhere. It seems to me that he realizes what an impact he could have on the futures of the children especially considering his experience with Jefferson. One would hope that his relationship with Jefferson would inspire him to continue.

12:18 [Comment From KJones]
I agree Michelle. Relatives can really take you there sometimes, but it is our love and desire for the do better and be better that keeps us returning to them.

12:19 Michelle Singletary:
Honestly, I had trouble too. In fact, I started it. Stopped. Read thru to the end and came back to that chapter. I didn't want to read it because it was difficult but also because it was so sad and wonderful and awful and beautiful. You could see Jefferson had a lot to him.

12:21 [Comment From KJones]
I had a hard time with chapter 29. For all that people thought was missing from Jefferson, he was such a naive and kind soul. It was heart-wrenching to read his diary.

12:21Michelle Singletary:
I think the preacher was jealous and he was concerned about Jefferson's soul. Both emotions played into his envy of Grant. It should have been him to reach into Jefferson and bring him out of his darkness. But I have to say I loved that he got all up in Grant's face still. I loved that he didn't back down and tried to get Grant to see that Jefferson needed more than that radio. 

12:23 [Comment From Kathy]
Was the sheriff looking for some type of absolution from Jefferson when he told him he treated him right?

12:25 [Comment From KJones]
Kathy, I think the sheriff felt bad for Jefferson in the end. In the beginning he gave his life no real thought. I think he considered him to be a hog like his lawyer described him in the beginning. But then I think his attitude toward Jefferson changed and he felt bad that Jefferson was going to die.

12:25 Michelle Singletary:
I'm hoping. Not sure but hoping. To be a teacher is a wonderful thing. It's also very frustrating because you want to reach everyone. But sometimes you are so focused on the many, you forget the few you do impact. I teach. I teach about money and I want so many people to do better with what they have. But I get frustrated when I see people make such horrible money mistakes with their lives. So I sometimes want to quit. I wonder if my work with the inmates is making a difference. But then you get that note or that comment from the "one" who is changed like Jefferson and it reminds you that if you can help just one that you are a success. Because that one can change someone else and that person someone else and before you know it, you've changed a family or class or town, etc. 

12:28Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Big Read DC events are being promoted through The Washington Post’s PostPoints. Use BR5647 as your special code to receive points. Want to sign up for a free account? Visit to sign up. As a PostPoints member you earn points to redeem at retail locations for discounts on merchandise.

12:29 Michelle Singletary:
I'm not sure about the sheriff. I think death makes people look at their own life and perhaps that's what was happening.

12:29 Michelle Singletary
Why do you think Paul reached out to Grant?

12:30 [Comment From KJones]
Michelle and Donna, I think Jefferson's soul was saved in the end.

12:31 Michelle Singletary:
It was saved if he asked for salvation in keeping with the story and the religion portrayed in the story.

12:31 [Comment From WandaWoman]
What lessons can teens take away from the story?

12:32 [Comment From KJones]
I'm not really sure why Paul reached out to Grant. I think working in a prison is a tough job to have and a lot of time the guards and sheriff can seem cold, but I think it’s because they don't want to get to close to someone about to die. Maybe Paul just wanted to show Jefferson some kindness.

12:34Michelle Singletary:
I'm going to have my daughter read this story and talk with her about it. I'm not sure they will get that Jefferson shouldn't have gotten into that car or that he should have left the store when things were going down or that he shouldn't have taken the drink or the money. Kids react. We old folks know how one reaction can change your whole life. They don't have that perspective (heck many adults don't have that perspective). So I think the lesson for them is to learn better decision making skills. Somehow we have to help them see how the wrong decision can have such a tremendous impact in their lives.

12:36 [Comment From KJones]
That's true. I think many teens feel that something like this would never happen to them. But is only takes one bad event to change (or end) your life.

12:36 Michelle Singletary:
Or maybe Paul was there to show that we can't lump all white people together as racist. He was decent. Nothing over the top. Just decent. And he knew that killing would have an impact on all of them for the rest of their lives and only those who were there in the middle of that awful justice would understand.

12:37 Jameely:
To Wanda. I think, as Michele mentioned earlier, a lesson can be learned from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peers are a teenagers greatest influence, so it is important to be careful about the company you keep and to think about the possible consequences of a bad decision.

12:37 [Comment From KJones]
The preparation for Jefferson's execution was told with great detail. What effect do you think it had on the people in the town?

12:38 Michelle Singletary:
I wonder how men or in particular black men would respond to this book. So far it's mostly women (as much as I can tell) on the chat. I was struck by some of the passages about the plight of black men then and how that relates to their situation now.

12:40 Jameely:
I also think there is a lesson to be learned about the value of your community, about contributing and giving back as Grant has done.

12:40 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Recommend “A Lesson Before Dying” to your male friends. Check it out at There are copies available in print, audiobook on CD, Adobe PDF eBook, and the HBO film adaptation on DVD.

12:40 Michelle Singletary:
Actually I disagree with you slightly. Actually studies show it's we parents who are the greatest influence on our kids. Yes, there is a LOT of peer pressure, but parents have the influence from the start. Kids behave and pressure other kids based on how they were raised or not raised. I thought about this because I did think that Jefferson's mother hadn't pushed him. Maybe she had given up on him because Grant's aunt hadn't. She pushed him to go to school. And she pushed him to be the man he became by making him talk to Jefferson. We shouldn't miss that important point. Lou pushed and pushed and pushed for Grant to do the right thing.

12:41 Michelle Singletary
For some the execution was sport. Others saw the inhumanity of it all. I do not support the death penalty. And this book gives great evidence to why it's wrong.

12:42 [Comment From KJones]
I guess that's one way to compare the book to today. It doesn't seem like the death penalty is going away. Unfortunately the practice seems to be growing. For all of those that are executed, I wonder how many of them actually committed the crime they were being put to death for.

12:44 Michelle Singletary:
Buy let's keep in mind Grant went to help kicking and screaming. He didn't want to give back. He taught because that's all he knew not because he had a great love for the children. However, after Jefferson, I think he will or would become a better educator. I think he finally saw the value -- the honor-- the heroism -- in teaching and changing a life. Jefferson had to die for Grant to live.

12:45 Michelle Singletary:
You see what you said exactly -- how many are innocent -- is why we have to fight to end it. Even if just one, that's one too many put to death. How does that make us any different than the ones who did kill? It doesn't!

12:45 Michelle Singletary
What did you all think about the issues of color among the blacks? Me, decades later we are still dealing with this thing.

12:48 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
I think it's so sad how we have become de-sensitized to the injustice plight against others. People today, not all but some, just don’t see the compassion in helping others. Even today, as I watched Good Morning America, a good samaritan was killed after helping a woman escape her assailant, but no one stopped to help the good samaritan...he died. 

12:48 Jameely:
I completely agree Michelle, that parents definitely do have the greatest influence when the children are at very young age. However, in my studies and in my experiences, I have learned that during teenage years, peers have more of the influence. But I do agree that the morals and values instilled by the parents will always be in the back of their minds. 

12:50 Michelle Singletary:
It's true we have become rather desensitized to people. I like to believe the people didn't help not because they thought the man was hurt but that the thought he was a drunk or something. But even if he were, why not help?

12:50 [Comment From KJones]
I'm not sure why color remains to be a hang up for us. I don't understand it.

12:51 Jameely:
Michelle: I love your point about Jefferson having to die for Grant to live - well said.

12:52 Michelle Singletary:
As the mother, who needs much prayer because she has a teen, I understand the studies and the teen pressure. But I still say we have the power. They just try to take it away from us. It's when we stop parenting and doing the hard stuff -- like saying no to hanging out at the mall -- that their peers end up influencing our children. 

12:52 Michelle Singletary
Oh come on you know. We don't want to say we know but we know. It still is a hangover from slavery. The lighter and closer to white the better you were thought or treated or thought of yourself. The darker the closer to being in the fields. As a race we bought into that and that legacy is still hard to shake.

12:53 Michelle Singletary
Yes Michelle, I do agree with that. I would like to see the adult community make more of an effort to help raise the children too - like libraries do!

12:55  [Comment From KJones]
But should it be hard to shake today? It should not be our legacy if we don’t want it to be. It still hangs around because people are still holding on to it. We have to let it go. The color of our skin means nothing about who we are or what we can do.

12:56 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
We are having a great discussion, but we are nearing the end. We have approximately five minutes left. Please submit your final questions.

12:56 Michelle Singletary:
Thanks, got it like that you know being a writer and all :)

12:56 Michelle Singletary
Very true about color. It's a process. But keep in mind we aren't that far removed from that legacy. Only in my lifetime were blacks given the right to vote or work where they want (for the most part). Only our -- my -- lifetime. Some of the legacies take generations and generations to scrap.

12:58 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Michelle, thanks so much for leading today’s discussion. Everyone, don’t forget to join us for the next Big Read DC discussion on Monday, May 3 at noon with Lisa Page, freelance writer with The Washington Post. Thanks for your participation.

1:00  Michelle Singletary:
It's been my pleasure to lead this discussion. Your questions and comments were very insightful. Enjoy the rest of your day!

Chat with Lisa Page, May 3, 2010, Noon
“A Lesson Before Dying”

11:06  Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Today, we are pleased to have Lisa Page lead the discussion on “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines. Lisa is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post Book World, the Chicago Tribune, Savoy, The Crisis, The Washingtonian and Playboy, among other publications. She is also featured in various anthologies. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University.

“A Lesson Before Dying” tells the story of a young man growing up in Louisiana in the 1940’s who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. Is this novel relevant to today? Did you feel a connection with any of the characters? Share your perspective on the story with us.

You can submit your questions now. The chat will begin at noon.

11:57 Lisa Page:
Greetings, everybody. It is my pleasure to be your guest host this afternoon. And what an honor it is to discuss this important and powerful book! I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

My opening question is about the very first line of the novel:
"I was there, yet I was not there" says the narrator, Grant Wiggins. How is Grant, in his own mind, in it but not of it, in terms of the situation he finds himself in?

12:04 Lisa Page:
Dear CMeyers:
Novelist Ernest Gaines knew of a real life case and based the book on it. He also grew up in Louisiana and so could flavor the story with such great details.

12:04   CMeyers:
I loved this book. The author was so descriptive at times, I felt like I was there at the church school house and in the cell with Jefferson. Although it was a great read, it was very sad because many young black males find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do you think Gaines had an experience growing up there in Louisiana that made him write this or do you think he just let his creative writing mind go to write this novel? 
12:04   CMeyers:
I also found it interesting that a lot of the parents of the children in that town look for other find a better way of get away from being a parent...for whatever reason they left their children behind. I think that would leave a child feeling very depressed. Why do you think none of the parents ever came back for their children once they got settled?

12:06 Lisa Page:
I found it interesting too that so many people left...but Grant Wiggins describes a dead end life. And my guess is, several of the parents were looking for better opportunities. 

12:06   CMeyers:
Grant continues to lay this love hate struggle with the town of Bayonne. For most of the book he complains about the place and wants to leave, but towards the end I think he finally understand his true purpose and what to stay to help the children get an education.

12:07   Peter G:
Who do you think ultimately learned more life lessons from the other Grant or Jefferson? 
12:07 Lisa Page:
One of the things I found interesting in the book was the battle between religion and education. Grant felt his teaching didn't supply enough to his students. Reverend Ambrose felt that, even though he wasn't formally educated, he could supply the word of God and that was enough. This debate plays out through the novel. Do you feel one side wins? 

12:09 Lisa Page:

Dear Peter G: I think that's a great question. And I think both characters benefit tremendously from each other. Clearly, Jefferson learns to die with dignity. But Grant learns something else. What do think it is?

12:10  CMeyers
@ Peter G, I think Grant learned a lot more form Jefferson than the other way around. Grant could not see all of the good he was doing until he interacted with Jefferson in that cell.

12:10 Lisa Page:
Yes. Grant ultimately becomes a better man himself, able to see with more compassionate eyes, don't you think?

12:11   CMeyers:
Of course the ultimate winner is Jefferson because he went to the electric chair with dignity and I'd like to think his soul was saved too.

12:11 Lisa Page:
Another question for you. What about the women in this novel? How do they uphold the moral center here? Compare Tante Lou, Vivian and Miss Emma.

12:13   CMeyers:
Ahhh...the woman. They were the center of everything - so smart and willing to lay a guilt trip on the men in the story in a heartbeat.

12:13 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
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12:15 Lisa Page:
Yes they did know how to guilt trip Jefferson. But they also understood what had to be done in terms of Jefferson's fate.

Another question: The radio is an important gift to Jefferson. But Reverend Ambrose calls it a "sin box." Would you compare this to the internet today?

12:16  DMitchell:
Do you think Rev. Ambrose was envious of the relationship Jefferson and Grant established?

12:16  CMeyers:
I also thought Vivian was an interesting character. A light-skinned woman that loved all shades of black people, something that was looked down upon to other light-skinned people. Why is skin color so important to people? 

12:16 Lisa Page:
Dear DMitchell: Yes I do think Rev. Ambrose was jealous of the relationship. He couldn't seem to break out of his own need to preach the Gospel.

12:18 Lisa Page:
I think the skin color issue is all over this book. But Gaines doesn't just make white people villains and black people victims. He has the light-skinned school superintendent come off as very racist toward dark-skinned people. And likewise, Vivian's family frowns on her for marrying somebody darker than she is. Also, the white character, Paul, is decent. What do think Gaines is saying about race here?

12:19 MW:
Do you think Miss Emma would have been as upset if the attorney called Jefferson a different animal other than a “hog?” Or do you think it was specifically the comparison to what we perceive as a dirty animal that upset her?

12:20 Lisa Page:
Yes. The "sin box" of technology, taking time away from religion, etc.

12:20  Peter G:
The "sin box" could be any number of pieces of technology today. From video game consoles to smart phones to television to the internet.

12:20  DMitchell:
Yes, to both the internet and some cable television channels.

12:20  CMeyers:
We live in a sinful world. But if you are a Christian, you have to know when to flee from sin and when to do the right thing. Christians can still have fun, listen to the radio, surf the Internet, but it how you choose to use those items is what makes the difference. I don't think the radio was a sin box nor do I think the Internet should be viewed that way for all users. 

12:21 Lisa Page:
I agree. The radio, like the internet and even TV all can provide important information. In the novel, the radio is "company" for Jefferson.

The other important gift Grant gives Jefferson is a paper and pencil. Why is this so important?

12:24 Lisa Page:

The other interesting fact of today (as opposed to the 1940's) is that Louisiana is in the news because of the oil spill and the after effects of Hurricane Katrina. How does this novel based so long ago, speak to present-day Louisiana?

12:24   CMeyers:
Wow...the journal. That was so powerful in this book. It gave Jefferson a way to say the things he thought no one would listen to out loud. It showed his emotions that he could not outwardly display because he had to stay strong. I especially like the chapter of Jefferson's journal entry. It was hard to read at first with the bad grammar and misspellings, but it was so powerful.

12:26 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Join DC Public Library Saturday, May 15 at 11:00 a.m. for a Big Read Town Hall Meeting and Reception. We will discuss the link between law, literacy, and juvenile crime as we compare “A Lesson Before Dying” to DC teens today. The town hall meeting will be at The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, NW, use Farragut North or McPherson Square Metro Stations. Check out more Big Read DC events at

12:26 Lisa Page:
I so agree. The journal had me in tears. It was so powerful and so beautiful. I was so grateful that Jefferson was able to express his feelings that way. I think it's one of the most important parts of the book!

12:28 Lisa Page:
Another question that goes back to an earlier one. Jefferson is transformed into "the bravest man in that room" of execution, before his death. His lesson is dignity.
What is Grant's "lesson"?

12:28  Peter G:
I think this novel could really be set in any time period. It really is a timeless tale of morality and compassion.

12:28  CMeyers:
Yes, I agree. The journal gave a small peak into Jefferson's life and thoughts. I must say that by the time the actual execution came I was all in tears. That portion of the book was so descriptive and it captured the feelings of the townspeople so accurately. They were horrified by all the preparations for the execution.

12:29 Lisa Page:
I disagree about the time period. I think a lot of the old prejudices are still in place but there are laws on the books, these days. I guess I'm wondering, how you would write this story in the present day?

12:30 Lisa Page:
Yes. The townspeople seemed transformed too, by the end. The electric chair had a funny name (Gert) and people joked about sitting in Gert's lap. But by the end, they weren't laughing. Why not?

12:32  CMeyers:
It's hard to say what Grant's biggest lesson was because he had so many. At first, he did not even think he had what it took to help Jefferson. He had no idea of where to begin, but as time went on, he got the hang of it and became quite fond of Jefferson. Maybe his biggest lesson was to believe that he was making a difference in those kid's lives and that they needed him to be there.

12:32 Lisa Page:
This novel is also about expectations about people with education, people without education, people who are white/black/light-skinned--and how many of the people here don't live up to what's expected of them. How is this a good thing, beyond Jefferson not dying like a hog?

12:34 Lisa Page:
One of the expectations Grant is always talking about is early death for so many, thanks to needless violence. Yet he himself gets into a bar fight. Why is this a turning point in the novel?

12:34  CMeyers:
I think in the end, no one ever wants to see (or hear) another person die. We were not put on this earth to pass judgment. End the end the townspeople showed some compassion.

12:36  FCordell:
Not only is the diary one of the most important parts of the book, but it somewhat gives the reader a look at how Jefferson comprehends the world. It is really difficult to read and comprehend - you really have to concentrate on each and every word to get a full understanding.

12:36  CMeyers:
I'm not sure the bar fight was a turning point. I think Grant was just standing up for Jefferson because no one else was at the time. But I guess it's also irony in that scene, because that's probably how all of the others Grant mentioned earlier had died...they were standing up for something they believed in and in the end they lost their life.

12:37 Lisa Page:
Yes. I do think his biggest lesson was to make a difference in others' lives.
The theme of manhood is also carried throughout the book. At times, Grant feels he can't be a man because he has to deflect to the white man. How are these dynamics still in place today? Do you see examples?

12:38  FCordell:
Do you think there is any significance that the two main males in this book have the same names as presidents?

12:39 Lisa Page:
Great observation! My guess would be that Gaines is making a point, using these names. 
12:39 Lisa Page:
Another question for you all: what does the sycamore tree outside Jefferson's cell symbolize? He's always looking at it and talking about it. Why?

12:39  CMeyers:
I can't say that I've ever personally witnessed any examples of people of color having to defer to a Caucasian. I don't think it is as obvious today. Now don't get me wrong, I think it exists, I just don't think that Caucasians are as blunt with it now in this area. Other areas in the South I'm sure are different.

12:41  CMeyers:
I think the tree represents life and freedom. He can see it growing and freely swaying the in the wind standing tall.

12:42 Lisa Page:
Ok I hear you about race differences today. In the 1940s of the south, teaching was the only job an educated man could do. And today there are a lot more options. But poverty exists today, as it did in Louisiana and people sometimes don't think they have options. And they steal, etc. Or end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And some innocent people get put to death.

How does this book argue against the death penalty?

12:42   CMeyers:
@FCordell, that is a cool observation. I never realized that until you pointed it out. Does this have any real significance? I think they are fairly common names, although Jefferson is more common than Grant.

12:43  FCordell:
Isn't a sycamore's bark always peeling? Maybe there is some sort of symbolism with that.

12:43 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Recommend “A Lesson Before Dying” to your friends. Check it out at There are copies available in print, audiobook on CD, Adobe PDF eBook, and the HBO film adaptation on DVD.

12:45 Lisa Page:
Interesting about the bark peeling. But also about the tree swaying. Images of life and growth and rebirth.

12:46 Lisa Page:
Why do Miss Emma and Tante Lou treat Vivian so cold when they first meet her?

12:47  CMeyers:
I think the argument for the death penalty is simple...there should be none. Too many innocent people get put to death for crimes they did not commit and you find out all too late that the accused has been exonerated. We should not be bringing judgment against others...God is the only one that has that authority.

12:48 Lisa Page:
I hear you about the death penalty. Do you think Ernest Gaines feels the same way, judging from the book? 

12:49  CMeyers:
They treat Vivian coldly because they think she has prejudices against dark-skinned people. But after Tante Lou's drilling, both ladies come to find (and think) that she is a good person...I believe "quality" is the word used in the novel.

12:51 Lisa Page:
Yes. They do speak well of her later. But don't you also think that women are protective of their men in general? And Vivian is initially seen as suspect and an interloper.

And this is another theme in the novel. The outsider and the insider. In a way, Grant is an outsider because he has an education. And Jefferson is an insider because he doesn't, yes?

12:53 Lisa Page:
Likewise, Vivian is an outsider (she marries a man her family won't accept) and Grant has little religious feeling (in a town that is very religious) Any other examples?

12:53  FCordell:
Grant is also an outsider because of his lack of "faith."

12:53  CMeyers:
Yes, all women are protective of loved ones and that is definitely relevant today too. But Vivian knew that Tante Lou would be protective maybe because she too is a mother. Regarding Jefferson, he did feel like an outsider and frankly wondered why anyone would ever care about him because no one had before. I think Jefferson learned to be more trusting of people from that experience.

12:55 Lisa Page:

We're finishing up the hour but what great comments and questions you all have provided! What words would you use to recommend why someone should read this book?

12:55  CMeyers:
After Jefferson goes to jail, nanaan feels like an outsider because Jefferson won't communicate with her or eat her food.

12:56 Lisa Page:
Good example about the food! Yes! Miss Emma was hurt bad because Jefferson wouldn't eat. Thanks for that one. 

12:57 Laura Brown:

I think the way the book is written is compelling....kind of a gritty realism.

12:57 CMeyers:
Powerful, thought-provoking, in-just, love story , great family ties, relevant to today, awesome

12:57 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Thanks for the great discussion, but we are nearing the end. We have approximately six minutes left. Please submit your final questions. 

12:58 Lisa Page:

I like you calling it a love story. Because it's about romantic love and self love too.

12:58 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Correction - two minutes left.

12:59 Lisa Page:
Well thanks to you all for a great hour! I've really enjoyed hearing from all of you and recommend the book to others. Take good care.

12:59 Producer: Kandace Foreman:
Lisa, thanks so much for leading today’s discussion. Everyone, don’t forget to join us for the next Big Read DC discussion on Monday, May 10 at noon with Lisa Frazier Page, award-winning reporter with The Washington Post and co-author of “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.”. Thanks for your participation.

12:59   FCordell:
I am glad we were able to have such a great discussion. Thanks to the library and Lisa Page

1:02 Chat Ended